Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a major buildup of his country’s military forces Thursday in an apparent effort to replenish troops that have suffered heavy losses in six months of bloody warfare and to prepare for a long, grinding fight ahead in Ukraine.
Putin’s decree — to increase the number of troops by 137,000, or 13 per cent — did not specify whether it would be accomplished by widening the draft, recruiting more volunteers, or both. But some Russian military analysts predicted heavier reliance on volunteers because of the Kremlin’s concerns about a potential domestic backlash from an expanded draft.
The move will boost Russia’s armed forces overall to 2.04 million, including the 1.15 million troops.
Western estimates of Russian dead in the Ukraine war have ranged from more than 15,000 to over 20,000 — more than the Soviet Union lost during its 10-year war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon said last week that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded, eroding Moscow’s ability to conduct big offensives.
The Kremlin has said that only volunteer contract soldiers take part in the Ukraine war. But it may be difficult to find more willing soldiers, and military analysts say the planned troop levels may still be insufficient to sustain operations.
Retired Russian colonel Viktor Murakhovsky said in comments carried by the Moscow-based RBC online news outlet that the Kremlin will probably try to keep relying on volunteers, and he predicted that will account for the bulk of the increase.
Another Russian military expert, Alexei Leonkov, noted that training on complex modern weapons normally takes three years. And draftees serve only one year.
“A draft won’t help that, so there will be no increase in the number of draftees,” Leonkov was quoted as saying by the state RIA Novosti news agency.
Russia and its proxy forces in Ukraine are operating 21 locations used to detain, interrogate and process prisoners of war and civilians, according to a new report by Yale University researchers backed by the U.S. State Department as part of efforts to hold Moscow accountable.
The report, seen by Reuters ahead of its publication on Thursday, cites commercial satellite imagery and open-source information to identify with “high confidence” the separate locations — including facilities that previously served as schools, markets and regular prisons.
The Humanitarian Research Lab at Yale School of Public Health that produced the report is a partner in a U.S. State Department-funded Conflict Observatory launched in May to capture and analyze evidence of war crimes and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine.
Nathaniel Raymond, the lab’s executive director, said the findings showed Russia and its proxies had established a “system of filtration” to sort people in areas that fall under Russian occupation that represents a “human rights emergency.”
Possible mass graves
The lab also identified possible graves at a prison complex near Olenivka, where 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war were allegedly killed in a blast on July 29.
Yale researchers identified disturbances in the earth consistent with individual or mass graves as early as April, the report said, matching the account of a former prisoner who reported that detainees were forced to dig graves at around that time.
Though the researchers did not reach any conclusion on the fate of the Ukrainian prisoners of war at the prison, they also confirmed further disturbances elsewhere in the compound were captured on July 27, before the blast at Olenivka. The New York Times has previously reported disturbances at the complex in July.
“Conditions are absolutely ripe for extreme abuse and in many cases, as we’ve seen in Olenivka, we see indications that we may have a five-alarm fire,” Raymond said, adding it was not known how many civilians had passed through or were still being held at the sites.
Russia’s defence and foreign ministries and its embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Children among 25 dead in Russian attack
In Ukraine, the death toll from a Russian rocket attack on Wednesday — as the country observed its independence day — has risen to 25, including an 11-year-old boy found under the rubble of a house and a six-year-old killed in a car fire near a train station that was the target, a Ukrainian official said Thursday.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces used an Iskander missile to strike a military train that was carrying Ukrainian troops and equipment to the front line in eastern Ukraine. The ministry claimed more than 200 reservists “were destroyed on their way to the combat zone.”
The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, did not say if the 25 victims he reported from Wednesday’s attack were all civilians. A total of 31 people sustained injuries, he said.
The lethal strike in Chaplyne, a town of about 3,500 residents in the central Dnipropetrovsk region, nonetheless served as a painful reminder that Russia’s military force is causing civilians to suffer and testing Ukraine’s resilience after six months of a grinding war.
The train station strike took place after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that Moscow might attempt “something particularly cruel” this week as Ukraine marked both its 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union and the six-month point of Russia’s invasion on Wednesday.
Tetyana Kvitnytska, deputy head of the Dnipropetrovsk regional health department, said the people wounded in the attack suffered a range of injuries.
“There are craniocerebral injuries, limb fractures, many patients with explosive and shrapnel injuries, burns,” she said. “People were in a difficult condition, both physically and psychologically.”
“Now our efforts are focused on the children who suffered. We work with four children. Three children out of four are in serious condition. In addition to severe stress, they have blast and shrapnel injuries, burns and fractures,” Kvitnytska said. “The children are in serious condition.”
The Russian government has repeatedly claimed following attacks in which civilians died that its forces only aimed at legitimate military targets. Hours before the train station attack, Russia insisted it was doing its best to spare civilians, even at a cost of slowing down its offensive in Ukraine.